East to West

The History of
Ugandan Asians

Asians in Uganda and the 1972 Expulsion

Uprooted 50 Years Ago

– Exhibition –

Asians in Uganda and the 1972 Expulsion

When the British conquered East Africa in the 19th Century they brought over 30,000 skilled Indian workers to Uganda on 3 year contracts to build the Uganda Railway from Mombasa to Kisumu and Kampala. Around 7,000 workers chose to stay at the end of the contracts. It was soon realised that there were considerable opportunities in Uganda and many Gujarati traders came over to capitalise on the economic opportunities.

The Asian population grew and prospered in Uganda forming an ethnic minority in the country. They maintained their customs and traditions by building schools, temples and by living as a close community. They were positioned as the “middlemen” in a hierarchical class structure which placed the Africans at the bottom and the white Europeans at the top, typical of colonial rule. in 1962 when Uganda became independent Indians dominated the economy, much to the growing resentment of many African Ugandans. At the time of the expulsion, Asians owned 90% of the country’s businesses and accounted for 90% of Ugandan tax revenues.

At the time of independence most Asians chose to keep their dual British citizenship and several thousand opted to leave for Britain in 1968. After this time the UK changed laws regarding the right to settle for non-white British subjects. However, the British government was reluctantly forced to relax the new laws and accept many of the Asians who were expelled from Uganda.

Idi Amin Dada was born into the Adibu clan of the Kawaka trib. In 1946 he joined the Kings African Rifles. It was here in the British Army that his hard work, diligence and bravery paid off, leading to a rise through the ranks. After independence this continued through the Ugandan Army and he became General by 1968. Amin took control of Uganda in January 1971 by military coup. When he first came to power he was hailed as the man who liberated Uganda from the oppressive rule of Milton Obote.

As the nation’s leader Amin addressed the growing resentment against Asians in the country. In October 1971, he ordered a census of all Asians during which they were required to give evidence of their nationality by providing passports and birth certificates, it was conducted in a way that humiliated the Asian population. In December 1971 Amin called for a national Asian conference at which he would publicly accuse them of discriminating against African traders and not integrating with the black Africans, he also brought up the issue of marriage between Asian girls and African men and how it was frowned upon. It was believed that Amin had been rejected by an Asian girl whom he had wanted to marry, and this had further fuelled his anti-Asian feelings. In January 1972 Amin again discussed these issues this time with the Asians feeling positive that they now had a better understanding with him. There followed a period of relative calm between January and July. However, Amin was about to shock everyone on 4th August 1972 when he would announce the expulsion of all non-Ugandan Citizen Asians within 90 days.

Idi Amin announced the expulsion in a scandalous way, claiming he had a dream in which God told him to expel all the Asians from Uganda within 90 days. He referred to the Asians as “bloodsuckers” that drained the Ugandan economy of its wealth. Initially stating his intention to expel only Asians who were not Ugandans, 2 days later it was amended to the expulsion of ALL the 80,000 Asians residing in Uganda at the time.

Many families were split up while trying to leave the country, as not all members of the families held British passports. The British High Commission and the BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) assisted in the transition of many thousands of Asians from Uganda. For the Asians the 90 days were spent in long queues for exit visas and plane tickets. Once these were obtained, further hardship was encountered at check points on route to Entebbe Airport where they were searched, robbed, and often assaulted by Amin’s soldiers.

Amin believed that Ugandans would prosper once the Asians left. Properties and businesses left behind were taken over by the Africans. During the first month everything was going well, however it was soon realised how damaging losing all the Asians was and an attempt was made to stop many more leaving. Suddenly there was a notable shortage of teachers and doctors. Amin realised too late that losing all the Asians would have a detrimental impact on Uganda and the country fell into a state of turmoil and economic chaos.

Amin’s was a reign of terror, eradicating any threat to him or his plans. Many prominent people found themselves on a hit list of individuals who were to be exterminated and had to go into hiding while enquiries and plans were made to leave the country. There were some who were not so lucky and were killed by his soldiers.